An artist whose work is both visceral and intellectual, Jay Kochel harnesses an anarchic intelligence with making skills of a high order and an imagination stimulated by the illicit, the taboo, the charged with power because forbidden or concealed. He is at once mad scientist and naughty boy, and clever enough to trick us into participating in his fascinated exploration of the underside of the material world.
A central preoccupation of his art practice is that the embodied self is a generator of meaning, a premise he explores by investigating our relationship with the objects in which we invest meaning. Flayed toys, rubberised undergarments, pneumatic thongs and transparent toilet plungers have all teased the viewer with intimations that we share a secret life with the things we wear and use.
A study tour of European museums in 2010, in particular the collection of anthropological and archaeological artefacts displayed in the magisterial Victorian clutter of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, brought about a significant shift in Kochel’s work. Triggered by his encounter with the authentic power of the artefacts in the museum collections, the ironic and playful qualities of his earlier work gave way to an investigation of the deeper resonances of fetish. His own response to particular objects persuaded him that the knowledge we generate through our bodies infiltrates all forms of knowing. Extrapolating from this, he suggests that it is through the intrinsic potency of artefacts that we mediate our relationship to the transcendent.
The Pitt Rivers experience also alerted Kochel to the peculiar energy of the Victorian era, when the erotic charge of sympathetic magic operated alongside the excitement of new scientific discoveries and the exploration of exotic cultures. Darwin’s Origin of Species was challenging the foundations of Christianity, Freudian psychology was emerging from the force-field of sexual repression, and séance was the popular expression of spiritualism. Science and magic had not yet been torn apart, and the pursuit of knowledge was alive to the inexplicable.
In Kochel’s most recent work, Exact Fantasies, four self-contained tableaux pay homage to the Victorian aesthetic of display to create their own force-fields. Taking as his starting point the premise that the true fetish triggers a real response in the body, and is therefore a legitimate, even essential, source of knowledge, each work is designed to elicit an embodied response.
While the works are aesthetically compelling and highly-crafted, their impact is reliant on the viewer responding through senses beyond the visual – heartbeat, smell, touch, psychic unease. This sympathetic connection is enhanced through the use of generic metaphors of the body – fluids, hair, orifices, containers, reflections – and manipulated through theatrical presentation and hidden electronic devices. The installations require participation and complicity. In Kochel’s work this complicity generates a subjective unease – the fear of contagion, the frisson of sympathetic recoil, the risk of being drawn into the sorcerer’s ambit. The art object infiltrates the body and steals into the apertures of the psyche.
The ammoniac smell of salt-encrusted jute in Jugum Trumpets conjures an immediate association – whether with urinals, hairdressing salons, hospitals or basements depends on the viewer – that creates a sensory context for the tableau before one begins to interpret the objects and materials. Kochel describes the smell as reminiscent of his grandparent’s basement, of mould and damp and animal nests, triggering childhood memories of places redolent with hidden possibilities.
A bench wrapped in crystal-encrusted jute sprouts horn-shaped protrusions at either end, like alter egos challenging each other. A pair of crowing roosters leaps to mind. One of the horns is covered with an imbricated pattern of metallic green Jewel Beetle wings, and both are densely pierced with pins, creating a goosebump surface effect and orifices bristling with layers of tiny fangs. They are simultaneously pierced phallus and vagina dentata, a double whammy of male paranoia. The title offers a hint of their geneaology, from a toothed metal device called a jugum penis that in Victorian England was strapped around the penis to prevent masturbation.
To skewer with pins hints at voodoo, dark magic, punishment. At the same time the replicating crystals suggest a current of energy flowing between these hermaphrodite creatures, turning the jute-wrapped bench into a site of transformation. The jute could be sackcloth, the fabric of penitence, saturated with the urgent secretions of the body – the bench a mediaeval altar, a butcher’s slab, a mortician’s gurney. The interpretations are limited only by the embodied recognitions and sympathetic imagination of the viewer.
Votives for Little Hans references a Freudian case study in which a small boy’s fear of horses is interpreted as castration anxiety. Like Jugum Trumpets, this work draws on both our bodily empathy and our associative references. The transparent carapace of an inverted saddle lies splayed above a pile of white wax shoes, its upturned flaps and distended mounds at once abject and predatory.
Like the shadowy encrypted shoes of Atrabiliarios, Doris Salcedo’s memorial to the Colombian disappeared, the shoes stand in for all those murdered Jews whose belongings filled Nazi warehouses. Half of them are high heeled and explicitly feminine, the rest sturdy masculine lace-ups. The colour and texture of bone or congealed fat, they suggest leftovers from some obscene carnivorous orgy.
Whether Little Hans suffered castration anxiety or was merely afraid of large unpredictable quadrupeds, this work makes a powerful case for the uncanny. Inverted, the form of the saddle exaggerates its function, to clasp the shape of the horse. Sexualised, transformed from functional object to transparent membrane, it is the ghost of a saddle. Just as the empty shoes invoke the missing people, so the empty saddle invokes the absence of both horse and rider. At once haunting and perverse, it could be the chrysalis of some profane hatchling, being ridden into the underworld by dead souls, at least half of which are wearing high-heeled shoes. Ghostly and numinous, it is all Little Hans’ bad dreams come at once.
Kochel’s references to Victorian spiritualism are explicit in Séance, in which a glass vessel containing a murky golden fluid stands atop a hexagonal polished table of the sort associated with Victorian hallways and drawing rooms. The viscous fluid is a facsimile of ectoplasm, the substance believed to carry the emanations from the spirit world. In front of the table is a small plinth, on which a lump of black bronze is mounted at hand height, connected by a delicate structure of pins and hair to the apparatus supporting the glass vessel.
Both table and plinth are mounted on a hexagonal timber platform, and the viewer is invited to play medium, stepping up to touch the bronze object and animate the substance in the glass container. As a transmitter of sympathetic magic, the strands of hair appear to conduct the body’s rhythms from the forged metal to the golden fluid, causing it to surge and heave. Like many theatrical manifestations of séance, the apparent link between cause and effect is created by trickery, in this case programmed interactive electronics. The dark formal furniture confers authority and a sense of ritual, while the lump of bronze holds together the forces and elements from which it was forged. Activated by human touch, it mediates the transfer of energy between Victorian order and the disorderly forces of nature and spirit.
In Smoking Mirror a thick rope of hair hangs from ceiling, dividing to frame a circular black mirror and ending on the floor in a large noose. So much hair has a visceral presence, enriched with the associations we invest in it, whether the cherished lock that contains the spirit of an absent loved one, or the strength and virtue shorn from Sampson.
The tableau draws on our associations with fantasy and fairytale.The heavy noose of hair into which the subject steps, to be confronted with a disembodied reflection, suggests stepping into an enchanted circle, thus acquiescing to the sorcerer’s will. The noose on the ground mirrors the noose that surrounds the mirror, a visual pun implying that by stepping into the noose one also steps into or through the black glass. Metaphors and references abound, the self seen through a glass darkly, Alice’s world through the looking glass, the reflected self trapped in the distortions of the Hall of Mirrors. The uncanny reflection that appears in the convex surface of the black glass is itself a product of smoke and mirrors, achieved by a concealed video camera that captures the image and transfers it to a computer, which sends back its spectral shadow.
This work achieves most directly Kochel’s intention of an embodied response brought about through the physical and psychic encounter with the work. Apart from the encounter with the disembodied self, both hair and mirrors carry multiple associations – Narcissus trapped in the contemplation of his own image, the evil eye, scrying, witchcraft, maidens trapped in castles. The noose infers hanging, and since this is Kochel’s work it is not too great a leap to suggest a reference to auto-eroticism. Depending on the preoccupations of the viewer, this work, like the others, is open to myriad responses and interpretations.
The invocation of the uncanny is central to all these works, and Kochel uses multiple tools to achieve this effect, drawing on the sympathetic magic of materials and the culturally-encoded associations of myth and history.In Séance and Smoking Mirror, hidden technology translates the bodily presence of the viewer into an integral part of the work. Jugum Trumpets invades our senses and threatens our bodies, while Votives for Little Hans draws on embodied associations and encoded references.
In his project to re-mystify the everyday, Kochel seeks to flush out our hidden fantasies, the hauntings and whisperings of our anarchic bodies, and in so doing to re-instate the fetish as both central to the experience of embodied knowledge and as a physical representation of that knowledge. In a world from which the numinous has been driven to take refuge in the fantasy world of computer games and vampire films, Kochel’s art endeavours to re-inflect the everyday with the charged energy of our secret lives. Each work is a threshold, a dark glass through which to reach and embrace the shadow self, to use the material world as a means to transcend it.